Understanding Trauma and How to Heal It
WHAT IS EMDR?
EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, is
an innovative, research-supported approach to psychotherapy for resolving disturbing and traumatic experiences, whether they occurred recently or decades ago. Survivors of natural disaster, combat, abuse, assault, accidents, chronic illness and other incidents of traumatic stress have all benefited from the skillful use of EMDR.
Many people have also found EMDR effective as a mind/body
approach to treat a broad range of other emotional and physical conditions such as depression, anxiety, phobias and addiction. Others have used EMDR to enhance internal resources like self-confidence and determination, or to achieve peak performance in their professional or athletic endeavors.
WHY USE EMDR?
Many types of therapy seek to resolve old trauma but EMDR
seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information by accessing what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In the late 1980s, Francine Shapiro, PhD, observed that eye movements could reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts under certain conditions. She initiated the scientific study of this effect, and in 1989 the Journal of Traumatic Stress first reported the success of EMDR in treating survivors of trauma. Since that time, therapists and researchers all over the world have contributed to its development and evolution.
Today, EMDR is a set of standardized protocols incorporating
elements of many different treatment approaches. The standard EMDR protocol is an eight-phase treatment to address therapeutic goals by targeting past memories, current triggers, and future responses.
HOW DOES EMDR WORK?
There is no simple answer to how any particular psychotherapy works at the neurobiological or brain level. We do know, however, that when we are very upset, it overwhelms our usual ability to cope so that
the brain does not process information as it normally does. Instead, the disturbing event—and our unique stress response to it—is stored in a network of associated memories and experiences.
The event becomes “frozen in time” because the brain has not
been able to process the associated images, sounds, scents, feelings, and body sensations. When the memory network is triggered, all or part of the traumatic reaction can occur again and again, often with the same degree of intensity.
Over time this kind of traumatic stress can have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way we perceive the world and how we relate to other people. This type of stress can also take its toll on our body’s ability to maintain physical health. Headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, pain, fatigue, lowered immunity, and other health issues often accompany unresolved trauma and loss.
In EMDR sessions, the eye movements support more adaptive
processing in the memory network so that we no longer “relive” the event when we bring it to mind. We still remember what happened, but it disturbs us less in the present and we stay more connected to our inner strengths and resources.
MYTHS ABOUT EMDR
MYTH 1: There is no research on the effectiveness of EMDR.
Over 20 randomized, controlled studies have investigated the effects of EMDR. These studies have consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases or eliminates the symptoms of post-traumatic distress for the majority of clients; moreover, clients often report improvement in other associated symptoms such as anxiety or low self-esteem.
MYTH 2: EMDR works in just one session.
Some people dealing with a single incident of trauma can often resolve the disturbing experience within three to four sessions. Others with more complex or multiple traumatic events can anticipate a longer series of sessions to address fully their treatment goals. In the first several sessions, therapist and client work together to develop a treatment plan, build trust and resources, and to prepare for using eye movements to desensitize and reprocess the targeted incidents.
MYTH 3: I’ll have to share the details of what happened.
Because EMDR accesses the brain’s own ability to “digest” trauma and store the memories in a more processed form, clients do not need to share the details of their experience. As with all psychotherapies, clients are in control of what and how much they share with the therapist.
MYTH 4: I’ll have to relive the trauma all over again.
EMDR does not require clients to relive the trauma intensely or for a prolonged time. In the actual reprocessing, many people get only a glimpse of the original experience. Others may feel a stronger degree of intensity but only for brief moments as the distress decreases quickly on its own. The EMDR therapist is also trained in techniques to help the client lower the emotional intensity and access positive coping when needed.
MYTH 5: EMDR is just moving your eyes back and forth; anyone can do EMDR.
EMDR is a comprehensive approach to psychotherapy that requires good clinical judgment and experience in treating trauma.
MYTH 6: The therapeutic effect of EMDR doesn’t last.
The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies highly recommend EMDR as an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress. Scientific and clinical evidence continues to show that EMDR can be an efficient and effective therapy. In addition, over two million people around the world are estimated to have successfully treated their symptoms and related concerns with EMDR.
WHO PRACTICES EMDR?
Mental health professionals who have taken both Part 1 and
Part 2 of an EMDRIA-approved training program are considered qualified to practice EMDR. Kristi Willhoft has completed both parts of the basic training through the EMDR Institute, Inc. She attends trainings annually to expand her skills and expertise. She also consults regularly with colleagues around the country in order to stay up-to-date with the latest developments and protocols.